1 on 1 with Mutiple Award-Winning Ugandan Writer Doreen Baingana
"My final major inspiration is that I want to record the variety that exists of the African experience, especially the African female experience. For instance, I grew up under the Idi Amin regime, but I had a happy childhood. This is hardly ever reflected anywhere in print."
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First published: August 14, 2006
It was July 2005 and I received my copy of Essence Magazine in the mail. I was very excited and immediately flipped through the pages, as I sipped a cup of green tea. As I neared my favorite section, I came across these words - Summer's best beach reads: we've rounded up a trio of terrific page-turners that will transport you through the Diaspora by Margaret Williams. When I saw the word Diaspora, I hoped that an African writer would be finally featured, but nothing prepared me for Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana and her book Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe (University of Massachusetts Press) being referred to as a must-read! Our own Ugandan writer being profiled in Essence Magazine!
Doreen Baingana, who is now a celebrity in the literary world, is a Ugandan-born fiction writer and poet who resides in the United States. She is part of a large family of nine siblings. Her father, the late Dr. Neri Baingana, was the first medical doctor in Ankole, and her mother Mrs. Erina Baingana, after a long career in human resources, retired as Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Commission. Doreen Baingana went to Lake Victoria Primary School, Gayaza High School and Makerere University, Kampala, were she received a law degree. She also has a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland, College Park, USA.
When it comes to awards, they are synonymous with her name. Baingana has definitely won international acclaim with her writing style. She was a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2005 and on the faculty of the Summer Literary Festival in Nairobi, Kenya in December, 2005. She won the 2003 Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction, and her short story collection, Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe. She is also the winner of the 2004 Washington Independent Writers Fiction Prize, and was a two-time finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing, in 2004 and 2005. Her most recent award is the The Commonwealth Writers' Prize for The Best First Book Award in the Africa region for Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe.
Baingana has also received grants and fellowships for her writing, including the first Fairbanks International Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2005, a scholarship to the same conference in 2004, and another to the Key West Writers Seminar that same year, and an Artists Grant from the District of Columbia in 2002. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as the Sun Magazine (Hunger,) African American Review, Callaloo, Glimmer Train, Chelsea, Crab Orchard Review, The Guardian, UK, the New Vision and The Monitor in Uganda. Her poetry has appeared in the anthology, Beyond the Frontier.
Baingana has lived in Rome, Italy, and now lives both in Uganda and the United States. Apart from writing, she teaches creative writing workshops and works for Voice of America radio in Washington, DC. She is also a columnist for the Ugandan monthly magazine, "African Woman," and is a member of the Ugandan women writers association, FEMRITE.
Jane: What inspired your book Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe?
Doreen: I have always loved reading, but most of what I read was set in the West, or was about foreigners in Africa. When I set out to write realistic fiction, I started out writing poetry and then fantasy! I wanted to re-create the reality I know, so that people like me, Ugandans, Africans, could experience their own reality on the page, reflect on it and perhaps re-imagine it. I was inspired by Toni Morrison, who said she wanted to write what she wanted to read but it had not yet been written: the stories of her people. Me too.
Also, writing for me is a process of exploration. I wonder why we do what we do and try to find answers by putting fictional characters in particular situations and seeing what they will do. I usually do not know for sure how the stories will end when I begin them. For example, the first story in the collection, "Green Stones," explores how alcoholism affects a family, particularly a young girl who adores her parents and finds out they are not perfect. Another question was how does a girl become an adult? At what point does this happen? Sometimes it happens at moments of disillusion, when one realizes one's parents are not perfect.
My final major inspiration is that I want to record the variety that exists of the African experience, especially the African female experience. We hear too much about wars, death, disease, corruption, you name it, and yet our individual experiences are not only about major tragedies. For instance, I grew up under the Idi Amin regime, but I had a happy childhood. This is hardly ever reflected anywhere in print. So I wanted to show that there are multiplicities of experience in Africa, including urban middle class lives, and I wanted to focus on personal, individual journeys rather than the usual generalized disasters. This is what fiction does well.
Why did you choose Entebbe and not for example Kampala, Mbarara or Kabale?
I grew up in Entebbe, and know it inside out. It was easier for me to follow the writing mantra, write what you know. I wanted to write about the urban experience, and I did not feel that Mbarara or Kabale or any other town in Uganda except Kampala, and perhaps Jinja and Masaka, had a real urban culture during the time I write about, the late seventies and eighties. Entebbe is very small, yes, but it has an urban consciousness because of the activity linked to the International Airport, the government offices that are remnants of the British colonial rule - Entebbe was the capital at that time - and its proximity to Kampala.
Entebbe International Airport
Raid on Entebbe
I had not planned to foreground Entebbe by including it in the title, but my editors said Tropical Fish on its own was not a very good title. So I decided to re-claim Entebbe from its fate as the location of the Raid on Entebbe. That is the only reason most non-Ugandans have ever heard of the town, but Entebbe is so much more than just that raid! Also, at the time I was editing the book I saw a movie called "Miss Entebbe. "It is an Israeli movie about the raid, but it is not at all about Entebbe, but about a young Israeli girl who kidnaps a Palestinian boy to try and force her government to rescue the kidnapped Israeli plane and thus free one of her neighbors. So the girl is nicknamed, Miss Entebbe. So here again my town was being stolen! If an Israeli movie maker could use my town's name, so would I. I am not even a Muganda, but I still call Entebbe mine.
Lastly, almost every single article or documentary or anything on anything in Africa is rarely specific, but uses the now cliched phrase, "Out of Africa." Isak Dinesen [also known as the Danish Aristocrat Baroness Karen Blixen] in her book by that name was writing only about a farm in one part of Kenya, and yet she began with: "I have a farm in Africa ..." How vague and how annoying. I instead decided to be specific, and play on the cliche by calling my stories, "Out of Entebbe." I am sure Kenyans are not amused, because they more than anyone are sick of Out of Africa.
I can understand that. There are many people who still think that Africa is a country. Now for those who have not yet read it, could you give us a brief synopsis of Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe?
Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe.
University of Massachusetts Press
Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe is a collection of linked stories about three sisters who grow up Entebbe, Uganda, and then take divergent paths, because of their different characters. One sister, Patty, takes the more traditional route of born-again Christianity; another, Rosa, is more of a cheeky high-school girl. A later story finds her at university, where she has been rather wild, what we used to call a "life-ist," and she gets HIV/AIDS. The story is in the form of a letter to the boy she believes gave it to her. She starts by accusing him, but goes on to explore the stigma surrounding the disease, and tries to come to terms with her condition, beyond blame and self-pity. The third sister, Christine, admires and envies her parents as a child but realizes, in the first story, that her parents are all too human. A later story deals with her first romantic encounter, and she explores love even further in the title story by having an affair with a British man in Kampala. She is trying to figure out her place in society as a woman, and a black woman. In later story, Christine moves to the United States, goes through culture shock, and is forced to reformulate her identity as an African abroad. In the final story she returns to Uganda to find out where her real home is. I was trying to trace the paths available for African middle-class women today.
The cover of your book is very beautiful, with vibrant colours. It's also distinctively African? How was that cover chosen? Who is the artist who created that cover?
I was very lucky to have the picture I wanted on my book, which is not common. It is by an Egyptian-American artist called Mona al-Bayoumi. I went to one of her shows in Washington, D.C. while I was still writing the short stories and I just loved that picture because it reminded me of the traditional Ankole dance. At that point, publication of a book was a mere dream, but I thought to myself, "if I ever have a book, I'd like this to be on the cover!" I could not afford the painting, but she had made cards with the image, so I bought some. A few years later, my manuscript won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Short Fiction Award, 2003. The prize was cash, and publication by the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. The editor asked me if I had a cover idea, I sent him the card and he and his graphic designer liked it! Mona lives in Washington, D.C. so I contacted her, we met up and got along. She read my book, and agreed that her work could be used.
Mona al-Bayoumi with a Commissioned Painting at the newly rennovated DC Chamber of Commerce Building in Washington DC.
Although the art work has a strong Egyptian element, the girls in the picture have the kind of fat straight legs many women from Ankole have, and though the girls are dancing, they could also be swimming, which fits the title of the collection perfectly. I am very pleased with it.
I read your short story Hunger in the Sun Magazine. One thing I have in common with you is the fact that we both went to Gayaza. You described Gayaza High School so well that it made me wonder if you had a diary like the character of your story Patti Mugisha when you were still going to Gayaza.
No. But after six years there I remember everything! I must emphasize that the stories are fiction, though they are set in real places that I describe as accurately as possible to make the stories believable.
Gayaza comes up in Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe as well. Why do you include it?
I think all the years spent in high school have a strong influence on what we become, because these are formative years, when girls are learning how to become women. The influence of a boarding school is even stronger because the girls are separated from their family and stuck at school where they interact with others very closely all day, everyday, in a setting with extremely strong social codes. These codes sink deep and become a part of each girl. Even at fifty-years-old, a Gayaza girl remains a Gayaza girl, and the same goes for the other boarding schools with a strong culture, such as Buddo, Kisubi and Namagunga, Nabbingo, or Namasagali. I have to also add that there are many other newer schools now that I don't know about.
You have a law degree from Makerere University, Kampala, and an MFA from the University of Maryland. So you veered from being a lawyer and ventured into writing. I admire that courage very much. Was that a difficult decision to make?
Yes, it was a difficult process. I was pursuing a Masters in International Law and at the same time taking poetry and fiction workshops. The workshops were the most thrilling thing I had ever done, while the law classes were dull and uninspiring. I realized that I did not have a passion for legal work, but had a passion for writing. Making a lot of money has never been important to me. Alas! I felt that I could use my skills better by trying to change hearts and minds through fiction and creative nonfiction, than by trying to improve legal systems. I believe that many problems between individuals, groups, and nations come from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the other. If more people had a chance to place themselves in another's position, they would be less inclined to do wrong to that other person. Fiction is a way to step into another's shoes and live that other life briefly. Some books have helped change opinion and thus culture. For example, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, showed the world the evils of apartheid in South Africa, and Native Son, by Richard Wright brought about a new understanding of the conditions of Blacks in America. The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston has empowered so many women. Poetry strengthens movements.
You were nominated for the Caine Prize in African Writing twice. Do you feel like that exposure has helped you further your career as a writer?
Yes, absolutely! The publicity was great! A South African publisher heard about me because of the nominations, read my book and liked it enough to re-publish it in South Africa! There are so many writers out there, so prizes help you stand out from the crowd. The Caine Prize exposed me to a British and African audience. The American publisher of Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe is a small university press without the resources for broad publicity, and the American market is such a large one that most American publishers focus on it primarily. Thus my book was not publicized much outside the U.S. But, because of the Caine Prize, I met many people interested in African fiction at the readings and other public events in London; I was interviewed on B.B.C.; I published an article on African writing in The Guardian, UK that received a bit of attention; and I got into African newspapers, including Ugandan papers. Nominations and prizes are public validations of the quality of your work.
You also won the Washington Independent Writers Fiction prize. It's clear that your writing style is very appreciated by the literary world. That is not an easy feat. Are you in the process of writing new books?
Thank you for the compliment. Yes, I am writing another book. A writer does not stop writing! It is about a woman who becomes a rebel leader, but any resemblance to a real person is entirely coincidental! I still have a long way to go, so be patient.
Do you think that there is space on the international market for Ugandan stories and Ugandan writers? Is the world ready for our stories?
I don't know why we Africans put ourselves down by posing such questions. First of all, why should we care? The question seems to imply that we have "arrived" only if we are accepted by the "international market" i.e. the western market. Not true.
Further, we can't wait for the world to be ready. We must create the space on the international market by writing the best stories we can. I believe each writer should write for him or herself first, then try and engage his or her own community, however she defines it. If our stories are relevant to us and add real value to the cultural discussion, they will be recognized by the West sooner or later. But ours is not to wring our hands worrying if "they are ready." Are they going to ring a bell to say so? Tulinda bbide? Should we educate them first? Of course not!
The Western market, or Eastern one for that matter, has its own concerns and its own ideas about what will sell, including a particular conception of Africa, either as the "heart of darkness" or an exotic national park. We writers cannot squash ourselves into those two dustbins, nor can we wait for such stories to stop making money. We must write what we are compelled to write, and work at expanding the African market. Fortunately, the West, just like anywhere else, is not a monolithic globe, but is full of diversity, including pockets of enlightened publishers, critics and readers who are looking for and can recognize valuable writing. Wide popularity rarely signifies high quality; more often the opposite.
I am glad you pointed that out, because quite often the misconception is that one has to be recognized internationally. But you are putting things into perspective. How have you been received as a writer on the Ugandan scene?
The recognition at home has been wonderful and heartwarming, especially after my reception, or lack thereof, in my adopted home, the US. Here I am a foreign or immigrant writer, introducing my "special" culture to Americans. But in Uganda, I was claimed as their own. When I was nominated for the Caine Prize, Ugandans were proud of me, and when my book won the Commonwealth Prize for First Book, Africa region, Ugandans celebrated, especially the wonderful women at FEMRITE. We had all won! That was really special, to be genuinely part of something larger than myself. For Ugandan writers especially, I think, the prize was extremely encouraging. It was evidence that such a win is in the realm of possibility.
Femrite is an association of Ugandan women writers founded in 1996.
Unfortunately, my book was not available in Uganda, the bookstores had not ordered it and negotiations with a Ugandan publisher were extremely slow. So I decided to make it happen while I was in Uganda from October to May this year. I bought copies from my publisher, shipped them home myself, sold them to bookstores, did interviews with newspapers, walked the streets of Kampala looking for sponsorship for a launch, and finally, with the help of Alliance Francaise, those wonderful supporters of the arts in Uganda, I launched the book successfully this April. Many people came by, I got television coverage, sold forty books at once and had a great time. I'm told the copies quickly sold out in the bookstores and people want more. Ugandans are dying for good stories that reflect their own reality, their setting, their issues, their high schools! I have received a lot of fan e-mails from Ugandans, among others, which is so rewarding. I am reminded that the work I do matters.
The launch of Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe in Uganda in April. In the second photo, I am standing with the official who launched the book; Justice Kanyehamba of the Uganda Supreme Court and the African Court of Human and People's Rights. He is an author too.
Who are your influences as writer?
For sure Toni Morrison, because of her lyrical and yet so intelligent writing, and how she uses her own people's stories and way of speaking and living in the (usually cruel) world to creative first-class fiction. She makes art out of history. I admire Nadine Gordimer for the way she, like Morrison, entwines the personal and the political. By telling stories about individuals trying to live through apartheid, she showed how the system corrupted them all, white, black or colored. Both these authors write a lot about women without making it seem less important to do so. I am especially interested in how women survive and negotiate their way through what still is a man's world.
Any tips for the youth?
I wish I could say, "follow your dream," but I don't think you know yourself well enough when you are young to know what your real dreams are. So try and live as long as you can and read as much as you can, but preferably NOT romance novels. And love carefully!
Where can your book Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe be bought?
What is next for you?
I am working on a novel, as I said earlier, and the paperback edition of Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe comes out this September in the US, so I'll be doing some publicity around that.
Well thank you very much Doreen for the interview. You are a source of pride and inspiration to Ugandans and Africans all over the globe. Please keep representing!
Thank you! It was my pleasure!
Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe
Caine Prize for African Writing 2005
Caine Prize for African Writing 2004
Africa Regional Winners Announced in Writers' Prize (2006)
Our stories aren't all tragedies
Doreen Baingana: Ugandan fiction writer and poet
Washington Post: Off the Page
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First published: August 14, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.